Religion and spirituality

Religion and spirituality have played a significant role in humanity's history. Many cultural sights from buildings to festivals and traditions are of a religious nature. Most populated places have one or more places of worship, some of them being among the oldest surviving buildings of the settlement, or with monumental design, with more elaborate architecture than secular buildings.

Symbols of religions

All travelers, religious or not, should learn something about the dominant religions in the countries they visit. Even in communities that seem secular and modern, such as Europe or East Asia, religion has played an important role in customs and values in the past, and often continues to do so to this day, even among people who are no longer religious. Even religions that have now virtually disappeared have left architectural remains, and sometimes a certain influence on other religions. Good examples of this are the old Eastern Christian churches in the Middle East, and the Precolumbian religions and rituals that are still visible under a thin Catholic façade in much of Latin America.

A religious congregation can be the base of an ethnic diaspora, and provide expats and travelers a connection with their people. For example, the Anglican Communion is a communion with the Church of England, with churches in most of the world's countries, with services held in English.


Religion and politics[edit]

Many countries have a state religion, while others, such as most communist countries, are officially atheist. Countries that are neither officially atheist nor have a state religion are called secular, and some of these have laws in place restricting religious worship or observance in public spaces. For instance, it is illegal to promote any sort of religion in publicly-owned buildings in France; this extends to the wearing of religious clothing accessories such as the crucifix or hijab. However, the official status of religion in a country does not necessarily correspond to religiosity of the general population. For instance, the United States is officially a secular country, but strongly Christian in practice, with nearly half of the population attending church regularly, and politicians often citing the Bible to justify policy positions. Conversely, Iceland is officially a Lutheran country, but rather secular in practice, with only a minority of the population actively practising the faith, and religion rarely if ever featuring in the political discourse.


Liturgical languages or holy languages or sacred languages may serve as the common bridge languages (lingua franca) among the people of different linguistic or ethnic backgrounds but with common religious adherence. However, the generally known vocabulary may be restricted to what is used in the religious context: that people know prayers in Latin or can quote the Koran in Arabic doesn't necessarily mean they can have a conversation in that language.

  • Arabic – liturgical language of Islam and the Baha'i Faith
  • Hebrew – liturgical language of Judaism
  • Japanese – liturgical language of Shintoism
  • Meitei (Classical Meitei) – liturgical language of Sanamahism
  • Punjabi – liturgical language of Sikhism
  • Sanskrit – liturgical language of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism
  • Tamil – another liturgical language of Hinduism
  • Aramaic — liturgical language in the Syriac churches
  • Church Slavonic — liturgical language in the Russian, Serbian, and Bulgarian Orthodox Churches
  • Coptic — liturgical language in the Coptic Orthodox Church
  • Latin — liturgical language in the Roman Catholic Church
  • Pali — another liturgical language of Buddhism


Missionaries and chaplains might find work far from home, usually combined with volunteer work. See also business travel and working abroad.


See also: Pilgrimage

Before the advent of rail travel and steamships in the 19th century, long-distance travel was hardly a pleasure, and many of those who ventured far from home were motivated by faith. A pilgrimage was, and still remains, a way to find physical fitness, redemption, wisdom, or the meaning of life. Though modern pilgrims can travel fast and comfortably to sacred places, some might, literally and figuratively, choose the narrow path. Some pilgrimage routes have become destinations in their own right as has the "travel infrastructure" of yesteryear – whether it is still in use as such or not. Many pilgrimage routes are also open – and indeed often traveled on – by those of a different faith or no faith at all. Some pilgrimage routes and destinations are off-limits to those outside the religion either year round or during special occasions.

Religions of Asian origin[edit]

See also: Architecture#Religious buildings

Of West Asian origin[edit]

Abrahamic religions[edit]

The Abrahamic religions are descended from the religion of Abraham who, according to scripture, led his people from Ancient Mesopotamia to the "Promised Land" in the second millennium BCE. They have much history and many beliefs in common. Judaism was the first one established, and Christianity and Islam are the largest in terms of number of followers. Smaller ones include Mandaeism (whose adherents believe that John the Baptist, not Jesus, was the Messiah), Samaritanism and the Baha'i Faith (whose Messiah came in the 19th century).

There are also a number of what are sometimes called post-Christian religions — so called because they hold a post-Biblical text sacred, in addition to the Bible. Most were founded in the United States, notably including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), Jehovah's Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists, all of which have sent out many missionaries and now have quite a few adherents worldwide.

Jerusalem is an important city in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

See also:


A Zoroastrian fire temple

While some the religions mentioned above are the most prolific, virtually all peoples of the world have some kind of spiritual tradition. The original pre-Islamic religion of the Persian people, Zoroastrianism, was moderately important from about 600 BCE-600 CE, declined considerably after Islam reached Persia but continues to survive in Iran, India and other parts of the world. Yazidism, the religion of the Yazidis, a Kurdish-speaking people from the border regions of what is today Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, was derived from the pre-Zoroastrian Iranic religion.

Of South Asian origin[edit]

Dharmic religions[edit]

The Batu caves in Malaysia host a monument to Kartikeya, the Hindu god of war.

Hinduism and Buddhism have their origins in India, together with some associated religions with much smaller numbers of adherents, such as Jainism and Sikhism. While Hinduism also flourished in much of Southeast Asia for hundreds of years, it was ultimately replaced by other religions there, with a few exceptions such as Bali. Hinduism has largely remained local to South Asia ever since, except for proselytic movements such as Hare Krishna and migrants of South Asian descent. However, Buddhist values have influenced a wide range of Asian lands, and because Buddhism does not demand exclusivity, it is often practised alongside local religions. Sikhism is still largely concentrated in the Punjab region, though there are Sikh diasporas in many parts of the world, most notably the United Kingdom, Canada, Eastern Australia and Malaysia.

You will notice the mention of yoga and meditation below. That's because both disciplines were highly developed in ancient times by Hindu and Buddhist masters, so that while many types of meditation exist and yoga nowadays is often practiced outside of Hindu and Buddhist countries in a non-religious manner, the origins of yoga and at least the most influential styles of meditation are in these dharmic religions.


In Manipur (an Indian state since 1949):

The Temple of Pakhangba of Sanamahism inside the Kangla, an ancient fortress in Imphal
  • Sanamahism or Meitei religion is a traditional religion of the Meitei people, the predominant ethnic group of Manipur. Though Hinduism and Christianity eventually became more popular after getting introduced in the 18th century and the 19th century respectively, this 3 consecutive centuries-suppressed polytheism is getting a revival through a wave of renaissance in Manipur. According to the census reports of the last two decades (2001 & 2011), Sanamahism accounts to be the fastest growing religion in Manipur.

Of East Asian origin[edit]

See also: Sacred sites of China

While much of East Asia is Buddhist or irreligious, there are many Muslims in China and Mongolia and many Christians in South Korea, and there are also other religions which developed within the region.

Unlike Western religions, the ones below tend not to demand exclusivity. It is fairly common in East Asian countries for someone to adopt some practices from more than one of these, and often from Buddhism as well, and there are many Chinese temples devoted to deities from more than one of these religions. Similarly, in Japan, prior to their forced separation following the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the distinction between Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples was often blurry, with temple complexes often being dedicated to deities from both religions. Even today, despite their official separation, most Japanese continue to offer prayers at both Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples for different festivals.

Of Chinese origin[edit]

  • Confucianism is more a code of conduct than a religion, though temples dedicated to Confucius do exist. Confucianism emphasizes respect for one's ancestors and willingness to play one's role in society, and also places a strong emphasis on education and study. One of the most noticeable influences from Confucianism you may notice in East Asian religious practices is ancestor worship, and richer Chinese families traditionally had elaborate ancestral temples for that purpose. The grandest surviving example of them all is the Imperial Ancestral Temple (太庙/太廟) in Beijing, where the emperors of the Ming and Qing Dynasties had worshipped their ancestors, though the interior was largely destroyed by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. On the other hand, the Korean and Vietnamese equivalents, Jongmyo (종묘) in Seoul and Thế Tổ Miếu and Hue respectively, are better preserved and have their interiors still intact. It has had considerable influence in various nations near China; see Imperial China for discussion. Both Confucius's birthplace in Qufu, and that of the second most famous exponent of Confucianism, Mencius in Zoucheng, draw pilgrims and tourists.
  • Taoism is based on meditation and the notion of wu wei (无为/無為) (non-action, going with the flow). It provides a mystical counterpoint to Confucianism and has had a large influence on some schools of Buddhism, notably Zen. There are famous statues of the founder, Lao-tzu, on San Shan Island in Lake Tai and Qingyuan Mountain in Quanzhou. While in its narrowest sense it refers only to the philosophy based on teachings of Lao-tzu, the term is often used in a broader sense to refer to the worship of traditional Chinese deities, including numerous historical figures who have been deified. The Wudang Mountains are widely regarded to be the holiest site in Taoism.

Of Japanese origin[edit]

A Shinto torii gate at the Itsukushima Shrine in Miyajima

Shinto is a Japanese tradition emphasizing mysticism, nature, and order. It's an animist polytheistic religion that worships a wide range of kami (sacred entities) ranging from mythical figures, foxes (稲荷神, Inari kami), historical figures like Tokugawa Ieyasu and Emperor Meiji, and the dead, to natural features, trees, and even events like earthquakes. While Shinto is an umbrella term for the different varieties of animistic beliefs practiced across Japan, the overarching belief is that the kami can affect outcomes if they are particularly pleased or upset (this led to the evolution of the religion in the early 20th century to becoming a nationalistic one - an upset spirit can seriously damage a country's standing in the world). Shinto lacks any specific moral or ethical codes that other religions usually have, which allows it to remain relatively flexible and respond to the changing world – for good and for bad.

Before Japan's defeat in World War II (when American occupation authorities mandated the separation of the church and state), Shinto was the state religion of Japan (also known as State Shinto), and non-Shinto believers were subjected to restrictions or even persecution (especially if their behaviors were deviant to militarism) to various extent. Shinto shrines were also constructed throughout the Japanese colonial empire, with many of them in China and Korea demolished after World War II. (One Shinto shrine in Tokyo, Yasukuni Shrine, is highly controversial in East Asia, because it commemorates Japan's war dead, including 19 Class-A war criminals.)

Even with the formal separation of church and state in Japan, the Emperor is seen as the head of Shintoism, and the direct descendant of Amaterasu, the Japanese sun goddess. For major events, the Emperor will visit Shinto shrines (jinjas), and this role is still seen by Japanese Shintos as vitally important to the state of affairs of the country.

The torii gate (the red wooden archway seen across Japan, like in the photo on the right) is a symbol of a Shinto shrine, not a Buddhist one. Torii gates are believed to mark the point where the sacred (the shrine's campus) meets the mundane (the rest of the world). Many Japanese will bow before walking under a gate as a sign of respect, even if they themselves aren't particularly religious (or Shinto).

Of Korean origin[edit]

Muism, or Korean Shamanism was the traditional religion of the Korean people. Though Buddhism and Confucianism eventually became more popular after their introduction from China, many Shamanistic practices continue to survive in Korean culture. A Shamanistic ritual called a gut (굿) is often performed on the site before the construction of a new building.

Of Vietnamese origin[edit]

Cao Đài is a syncretic religion that originated in Southern Vietnam in 1926, incorporating elements from Mahayana Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and Roman Catholicism. It is today the third largest religion in Vietnam, after Buddhism and Christianity. Tây Ninh is the headquarters of the religion, where visitors can visit its main temple, also known as the Cao Dai Holy See.


  • Various forms of shamanism are practiced in Siberia and Mongolia. However, the context is different for each people, so the "-ism" part of the word is questioned as misleadingly implying some unified religion or ideology.

African and African diaspora religions[edit]

See also: Ancient African nations

By far most Africans today are Muslims or Christians, and there are also very ancient Jewish communities in several African countries and newer ones in others, as well as many Hindus among its Indian diaspora communities. However, there are also religions of African origin, some of which have spread to the African diaspora in the Americas. While the African diaspora in the Americas is overwhelmingly Christian today, with a Muslim minority, many elements of traditional African religions have been syncretized with Christianity among many predominantly-black congregations in the Americas, and there are some who practice these religions exclusively.

Yoruba religion[edit]

Yoruba religion, Santería, and Candomblé are essentially different names for the religion of the Yoruba, the second most populous tribe in Nigeria, whose homeland is now also part of Benin and Togo in West Africa. There is a large diaspora of Yoruba in the Americas, chiefly as a result of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and therefore, Yoruba religion was spread to Cuba (Santería) and Brazil (Candomblé). Most Yoruba today are Christians or Muslims, but many aspects of their traditional religion are still practiced in their homeland. Yoruba traditional religion is polytheistic, with many orishas (deities) venerated and represented as statues. In the African Diaspora, the religion was syncretized with Catholicism for safety, as so-called "witchcraft" has been persecuted a lot of the time in Catholic countries in the Americas, so each orisha was associated with a particular saint. Therefore, when you look at items for sale in a botánica (Santeria religious items store) in any number of communities with large Hispano-Caribbean populations, including U.S. cities such as New York and Miami, you will see many things that look like Catholic religious icons, but they are really intended to represent Yoruba deities. Practitioners of Yoruba religion are known for making animal sacrifices and performing magic, and indeed there are those who do both, but magic can be white (positive) or black (destructive), and the idea that all the millions of people practicing this religion are doing black magic is unfounded. The Afro-Cuban music associated with Santeria uses a lot of African percussion and is quite polyrhythmic and exciting, designed to alter the listener's mental state.

West African Vodun and related diaspora religions[edit]

West African Vodun is the traditional religion of the Fon people of Benin, Togo and Nigeria and Ewe people of Ghana, Togo, Benin and Nigeria. A large number of Fon people were enslaved and transported across the Atlantic, and their religion came, too, and is now also known as Cuban Vodú, Brazilian Vodum or Umbanda, Puerto Rican Vudú (Sanse) and Louisiana Voodoo. Haitian Vodou has aspects of both West African Vodun and Yoruba religion, while Dominican Vudú is of mixed West African, South African and indigenous Taino origins. Vodun can be interpreted as polytheistic or monotheistic, in that it has a single creator goddess, Mawu, and Voduns of the Earth, thunder and justice, the sea, iron and war, agriculture and forests, air, and that which is unpredictable. In the Catholic colonies and countries the enslaved descendants of the Fon and Ewe found themselves in, they syncretized Vodun with Catholic beliefs in a single creator God and various saints who can be called upon to pray for you. In Africa, although most Fon and Ewe people are now Christians, many of them continue to practise the traditional Vodun religion alongside Christianity. Like Yoruba religion, Vodun and its outgrowths in the African Diaspora are known for magic, and like Yoruba religion, the bad reputation Vodun has as solely a practice of black magic is inaccurate. If you visit Lomé, Togo, or any number of cities in Benin and other countries where Vodun or traditions originating from it are practiced, look for fetish markets where you can see various items related to its practice including animal bones and dolls.

One thing to keep in mind about the belief in and practice of Yoruba religion, Vodun and their outgrowths in the Americas is that you should never assume that just because someone comes from a country where such beliefs exist, they therefore share or practice them. There are still sometimes violent, even murderous attacks on the adherents of these religions by Christians such as Pentacostalists in Brazil, and it's quite common for the much larger group of non-violent Christians to consider these to be not religions but Satanism. Conversely, you would be wrong to assume that just because someone doesn't look African to you or is even of completely European ancestry, they therefore couldn't believe in or practice these religions. So tread carefully to avoid offense.


Rastafari is a religion that developed among the African diaspora community in Jamaica in the 1930s. Rastafari (or Rastas in short) believe that Haile Selassie, the Emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974, is the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, and advocate for a return to Africa (known as "Zion" to Rastas) by the African diaspora, whom they regard as being oppressed by Western society (known as "Babylon" to Rastas). So in some senses, Rastafari is a post-Christian religion. Note that whereas non-Rastas sometimes refer to Rastafarians and Rastafarianism, Rastas themselves oppose what they call "ism schism", believing that having anything like an official set of required beliefs is just a way to divide people. Perhaps the most famous Rasta was the Jamaican reggae singer Bob Marley. Today, the vast majority of Afro-Jamaicans are Christians, with Rastafari being very much a minority religion, though it continues to be influential in reggae music.

Religions of Oceanian origin[edit]

Religions of Polynesian origin[edit]

Although the vast majority of Polynesians today are Christians, elements of the traditional Polynesian religions survive in the local cultures. The ones foreigners are most likely to come across are the traditional religions of the Maori of New Zealand, and the native Hawaiians.

Native Hawaiian religion is traditionally polytheistic. The Hawaiian deity visitors are most likely to learn about is Pele, the goddess of volcanoes and fire. The Hawaiian islands are all of volcanic origin and therefore believed by Native Hawaiians to have been created by Pele. Anyone who violates her by taking any volcanic rocks or sand home from Hawaii is believed to be cursed, and respecting Native Hawaiian religion and traditions means leaving all natural objects where they are (except for things like a lei you may be gifted) and leaving no trace of your visits to any of the high places. Reverence for Pele has made the astronomical observatory at the top of Mauna Kea on the Big Island and proposals for its renovation controversial.

Likewise, traditional Maori religion is polytheistic, culminating in Rangi the sky father and Papa the earth mother, who are believed to have been the ancestors all living things. Although most Maori today are Christians, elements from their traditional religion have been incorporated into modern funerary rites, and you can also see influences from the traditional Maori religion in the architecture of modern-day Maori churches.

There are also beautiful traditions of choral singing in various Polynesian churches, which fuse indigenous musical styles with European ones that were brought to the region during the colonial era. This tradition is particularly well-known among the Fijians, Tongans, Samoans and the Maori of New Zealand.

Religions of Australian origin[edit]

See also: Indigenous Australian culture
A rock shelter in Kakadu NP

The vast majority of Aboriginal people in Australia today are irreligious but spiritual, with Christianity being by far the dominant religion among those who are religious, but elements of their traditional religions continue to be an important part of their cultures. The ones that visitors are most likely to come across are known as The Dreamtime, which refers to traditional Aboriginal stories about the creation of the world.

In some parts of Northern Australia, many elements of Islam were brought in by Indonesian fishermen from Sulawesi and many Islamic elements can be seen in rock artworks such those in Kakadu National Park and the Kimberley.

Religions of North and South American origin[edit]

See also: Indigenous cultures of North America, Indigenous cultures of South America

The vast majority of Native Americans today are Christians, though you can find elements of the traditional religions in their cultural practices.

  • There is also the Native American Church, a religion that combines elements of Native American traditions and Christianity, in that the one Great Spirit is considered the same as Jesus Christ. Having originated in the Oklahoma Territory at the end of the 19th century and using Plains Native American symbols such as a ceremonial tepee, it has about 250,000 adherents in the U.S. (especially the Great Lakes states and further west), Canada and Mexico. Their ceremonial use of peyote, a hallucinogenic cactus, has previously been persecuted under drug laws and is now protected under a 1978 U.S. law.

In Latin America, most of the indigenous people are now Roman Catholic, but various indigenous practices continue to survive. For instance, the Nahua people of Mexico, who are the descendants of the Aztecs, often fuse stories of their traditional deities with those of Christian saints, and continue to conduct some of their pre-Columbian religious rituals, albeit for the celebration of Christian festivals today. Descendants of the Mayans in southern Mexico and Guatemala likewise have fused elements of their traditional religion with Christianity; traditions once associated with the Sun God are now often associated with Jesus Christ instead, while those once associated with the Moon God are now often associated with the Virgin Mary. In Cuzco, Peru, although mostly Roman Catholic today, the descendants of the Incas re-enact Inti Raymi'rata, the traditional Inca Festival of the Sun God, on 24th June every year.

Religions of Eurasian origin[edit]

Greek and Roman religions encompass the beliefs and legends of ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. While these were displaced by Christianity, Graeco-Roman mythology makes up some of the oldest pieces of European literature, including the legends of the Trojan War, retold in the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Some other religions have gone extinct and been revived, such as Celtic and the Old Norse. Even disappeared ones may have left a mark on subsequent religions or "secular" traditions, but the exact extent is often hard to gauge as many cultures abandoned their former religion before the introduction of writing, and missionaries often tried to hide the fact that "the feast of Saint Whatshisface" bears some striking similarities to the former "feast of Goddess Whatshername". Hinduism is believed by many modern scholars to share a common origin with many pre-Christian European mythologies, as well as pre-Islamic Persian mythology.

Similarly, many stories in today's religions are believed to have been influenced by stories from now-extinct religions. For instance, the story of Noah's Ark in the Bible has striking similarities with the story of Utnapishtim from the Epic of Gilgamesh in Ancient Mesopotamian mythology.


While a few ancient scholars around the world rejected religion altogether, organized atheism and irreligion became an intellectual movement in its own right with the Enlightenment of the 18th century, and the subsequent revolutions in Europe. Revolutionary France was among the first formally atheist states in Europe, and even today, the French are fiercely protective of their tradition of secularism (laïcité), and French law severely restricts displays of religiosity in the public sphere. Karl Marx notably viewed religion as "the opium of the masses" in a compassionate yet critical view — something that alleviates the oppressed's pain yet solidifies the dominance of ruling class and prevents socialist/communist revolutions. The Soviet Union and other communist states of the 20th century were officially atheist, often with severe restrictions or even outright bans and persecution on religious practices.

Many authoritarian governments have had a cult of personality for current or deceased leaders, with practice and symbolism inspired from traditional religions, at times replacing the religions, and integrating with the state ideology. A notable extant example is Juche, the state ideology of North Korea, which includes a cult of the late Kim Il-Sung, who is still after his death the country's nominal leader. Another less well-known example is the cult of Saparmurat Niyazov, better known by his title Turkmenbashi ("Father of All Turkmen"), the first president of Turkmenistan after its independence from the Soviet Union.


Religion is a sensitive topic, and a component in many international and regional conflicts. A comprehensive guidebook of all religious customs in the world would be very long; as a general principle, travellers should learn about manners prescribed by the dominant religions at the destination.

It's fine not to know everything about a place's religious traditions; it can even be a conversation starter to ask someone about the significance of a local holiday or celebration. But a rule that works pretty much everywhere in the world is not to dismiss someone else's religion or religious traditions, or to act as though theirs is less true than yours. Even when the people you interact with are not particularly religious, their culture is probably still influenced by religion, and they can be assumed to take pride in their culture.

In some countries, criticizing the local religion or talking highly of some other religion is banned. People talking about religion might be seen by government officials as "proselytizing", which could be illegal and end you in jail. In such countries, you may want to be even more discrete about your own thoughts.

Manners at religious sites[edit]

The mandated behaviour at religious sites varies between faiths, and can be contradictory; male visitors should bare their head in a church, and cover it in a synagogue. Well-visited sites might have signs which describe the appropriate behaviour, but this cannot be expected. Before you enter a site of a religion you are not familiar with, research the manners of the religion; by following the links in this article, checking the relevant country articles or asking a local.

At most religious sites, it is good manners to keep silent, and wear clothes that cover arms and legs. Avoid photography and touching the interior objects, unless you know that the behaviour is accepted.

See also[edit]

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